Lots of people want to know the answer to his question. The number of hit-and-run crashes reached an all-time high in 2016. These incidents are particularly common in vehicle-on-pedestrian crashes. In most other types of collisions, the tortfeasor’s (negligent driver’s) vehicle is inoperable. A few people try to flee the scene on foot, but police usually track these individuals down rather quickly.
Fleeing the scene of a car accident
Most people flee the scene because they know they are at fault and they know they caused a serious or fatal injury. They are afraid of the consequences and figure that it’s better to run away and take their chances. Again, that’s especially true in pedestrian accidents. If the impact speed is greater than 40mph, the pedestrian fatality rate is over 90 percent.
Between emergency care and physical rehabilitation, the medical expenses in these cases are usually staggering. Many health insurance companies refuse to pay these costs. So, an attorney must pick up the slack. Fortunately, hit-and-run crash victims have multiple legal options.
Establishing Liability in Hit-and-Run Cases
If possible, holding the tortfeasor responsible for the crash is usually the best pathway. Many jurors intensely dislike hit-and-run drivers. So, jurors are generally more sympathetic to victims during the trial’s liability phase. Because of this dislike, many jurors are also willing to award additional punitive damages. These damages are designed to punish the tortfeasor and deter future misconduct.
Punitive damages are on top of compensatory damages. This money covers economic losses, such as medical bills, and noneconomic losses, such as pain and suffering.
Burden of proof
In most jurisdictions, authorities successfully prosecute fewer than half of the hit-and-run drivers. The burden of proof in criminal cases (beyond a reasonable doubt) is very high. Essentially, either the defendant must confess or a witness must place the defendant behind the wheel at or near the scene of the collision.
But in civil court, the burden of proof is only a preponderance of the evidence (more likely than not). As a general rule, it’s more likely than not that the person who owned a vehicle was also driving it at any given time. So, if the victim/plaintiff tentatively identifies the vehicle, that’s usually sufficient to establish liability for damages.
Assume witnesses to a hit-and-run crash see a dark sedan with a license plate that ends in “XG.” That’s not nearly enough evidence in criminal court. There are about a bazillion cars which fit that description. Moreover, there’s no way to prove who was driving at the time. But that vague description is probably enough in civil court.
Finding the hit and run defendant
Finding the tortfeasor also raises the possibility of third party liability. Most jurisdictions have broad rules in this area. So, vicarious liability means an additional source of recovery. Some common theories include:
- Respondeat Superior: Employers are legally responsible for the negligent acts of their employees if these acts occur within the scope of employment. These terms are very broadly defined. The respondeat superior rule may apply to all kinds of tortfeasors, including Uber drivers, delivery drivers, and even unpaid volunteers who drive church buses.
- Dram Shop: In terms of alcohol provider liability, rules vary by state. Some jurisdictions hold most commercial alcohol providers liable for damages if they sell alcohol to people who subsequently cause car crashes.
- Owner Liability: The negligent entrustment rule holds vehicle owners responsible for damages if they knowingly allow incompetent people to borrow their vehicles. Different rules apply to commercial negligent entrustment cases (g. movers who rent U-Haul trucks).
Most jurisdictions use a modified joint and several liability rule. The judge apportions damages between multiple responsible parties based on their percentage of fault.
Tracking Down the Tortfeasor
Many police departments do not make much effort to track down hit-and-run drivers. Unless there is a mountain of evidence at the scene or the tortfeasor voluntarily comes forward, these cases are almost never solved. Typically, police departments see car crashes as a civil matter between the victim and tortfeasor.
But a lawyer fights for you. So, attorneys use a number of proven methods to track down tortfeasors that leave the scene. Some examples include:
- Recanvassing for Witnesses: Emergency responders usually only take statements from the people who voluntarily come forward at the time of the crash. An attorney can go back to the area and locate additional witnesses who, for whatever reason, did not want to talk to police officers.
- Reviewing Surveillance Video: This process involves more than just looking at any video of the crash scene. A red light or other camera a couple of miles away might show a glimpse of the tortfeasor’s vehicle. Since the burden of proof is low, that glimpse may be all that’s necessary.
- Investigating Body Shops: Tortfeasors must get their cars repaired someplace. An attorney can painstakingly go to nearby body shops and often find a vehicle that matches the suspect vehicle.
- Staking Out the Area: This job is not at all glamorous. However, most people follow the same routine every day. So, if the tortfeasor was in the neighborhood on Thursday, that person will probably be back in the area on Friday.
Attorneys usually partner with private investigators to track down tortfeasors. That delegation allows lawyers to focus on the legal aspects of your case and on settlement negotiations with the insurance company.
Despite a lawyer’s best efforts, sometimes it is impossible to locate the tortfeasor. There may simply not be enough evidence to go on. That’s especially true in a no-witnesses fatal collision.
Some people think that if there is no tortfeasor, they cannot pursue a claim. But in most cases, these victims can file claims against their own insurance companies. The downside is that third party liability is unavailable, and the tortfeasor does not face the music. But on the other hand, these kinds of claims often settle quickly and on victim-friendly terms. The victim’s own insurance company wants to keep its customer happy.
Procedurally, insurance-only claims are pretty much the same as adversarial claims. However, if the claim does not settle, the dispute usually goes to arbitration instead of trial. In most jurisdictions, it’s illegal to sue your own insurance company.
Contact us to find out more about the treatment options you have after a hit-and-run crash.